Your patients may be aware that it’s possible to have too much potassium in their blood, but do they know what complications they are at risk for? The standard potassium level in the blood is 3.6 to 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L).¹ High potassium, also known as hyperkalemia, can be extremely dangerous to a person’s heart health. If a patient has a blood potassium level of 6.0 mmol/L or higher, it can be life-threatening.
If your patients are at risk for hyperkalemia, they need information on risk factors, detection, and how to manage their potassium levels. Be sure to share these facts with them.
Hyperkalemia Causes and Risk Factors
One of the more common causes of hyperkalemia is chronic and advanced kidney disease.² The kidneys help maintain potassium levels by filtering it out through urine. However, as kidney function declines, they struggle to perform this function. This puts patients at significant risk.
Other potential causes of hyperkalemia or factors that can put patients at risk include2,3:
- Medications that stop the kidneys from removing potassium, including some drugs that lower blood pressure
- Diabetes, which can negatively affect the kidneys if not properly controlled and managed
- Heart failure
- A diet too high in potassium
- Taking extra potassium supplements
- Addisons disease
- Heavy drug or alcohol use
Understanding the causes and risk factors of hyperkalemia is important because often, patients do not show symptoms of the disorder. Should symptoms develop, what patients experience may depend on whether hyperkalemia has developed over time or suddenly. Common symptoms include:
These are very mild symptoms, ones patients may not connect to hyperkalemia initially. If it is a particularly serious and/or sudden case, symptoms may include⁴:
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- Irregular heartbeat
- Nausea and vomiting
- Difficulty breathing
If not treated in a timely fashion, hyperkalemia can not only cause all of the above complications, but also potentially heart failure and paralysis.⁵
Hyperkalemia Treatment and Management
Healthcare professionals should let patients who are at risk of or concerned about hyperkalemia know that it can be easily detected. Because the condition is often detected via a blood or urine test, it can be found during standard tests at a patient’s annual check-up.
Hyperkalemia is a condition that can be properly managed and treated. Lifestyle changes may need to be made, most notably adopting a low-potassium diet. This requires avoiding high-potassium fruits (including avocados, bananas, and apricots), vegetables (including potatoes, tomatoes, and mushrooms), and other foods high in potassium like dairy products.⁶ Patients may also need diuretics to better flush potassium out of the body via urine.²
In the case of particularly high potassium levels, emergency treatment such as providing calcium, glucose, or insulin through an IV may be required.³ In extreme cases of hyperkalemia caused by kidney failure, dialysis may be necessary.
1. High potassium (hyperkalemia). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/hyperkalemia/basics/definition/sym-20050776. November 14, 2020. Accessed June 30, 2021.
2. What is hyperkalemia? National Kidney Foundation. https://www.kidney.org/atoz/content/what-hyperkalemia. Reviewed February 8, 2016. Accessed June 30, 2021.
3. Hyperkalemia (high potassium). American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-failure/treatment-options-for-heart-failure/hyperkalemia-high-potassium. Reviewed October 31, 2016. Accessed June 30, 2021.
4. Wint C. High potassium. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/high-potassium-hyperkalemia. Reviewed May 22, 2017. Accessed June 30, 2021.
5. High potassium (hyperkalemia) – when to see a doctor. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/hyperkalemia/basics/when-to-see-doctor/sym-20050776. Reviewed November 14, 2020. Accessed June 30, 2021.
6. Higuera V. Healthy, low potassium meals for hyperkalemia. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/high-potassium/low-potassium-meals. Reviewed April 20, 2020. Accessed June 30, 2021.